We saw The Hobbit last week and in terms of a super-brief review it is significantly better than you fear but inevitably not as good as you hoped. It's release marked a curious ending of some short term and very long term cycles in my own life.
I saw the last one this time last year with my family on the other side of the world. Obviously I was back in New Zealand -Wellington, in particular, earlier in the year- The first time I visited Wellington was the weekend of the Academy Awards where Return of the King clean swept its categories. (That was one heck of a party.) I first heard Into the West about 150 metres from the recent Sydney siege. The day we saw the film was the day we published this:
That #OneLastTime hashtag is a rare moment where cynical marketing -selling you the whole corpus because the last film isn't the best installment- actually works because it is true in this case. Jackson and Walsh will never turn their country into Middle Earth again. (Of course, at the appalling rate of remakes Hollywood is currently shitting out, I may well still be alive for the 'reboot'.)
We have touched on Tolkien's Catholicism insofar as it relates to his view of destiny before. But I want to widen it out to see if we can't find it spread right across Middle Earth... which he always told us we could.
This Advent I have been following the O Antiphons cycle as per some curious instructions that tumbled out of a potent piece of ancestor work done during my weird and loose NYC Halloween. This was yesterday's one.
This is the English translation of the words:
O Day-Spring, Brightness of the Light everlasting, and Sun of righteousness.
Come and enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
The eagle-eyed grimoirists among you should recognise the Latin name of 'Day-Spring'. It is one of the names of the Four Kings. Actually it is the name of the pre-eminent of the Four Kings. This is interesting because it is a further example of the sophisticated conflation of magical and astronomical symbols in the post-Classical world. This is a sophistication that is sorely lacking in contemporary magical discourse today. Day-Spring in this context is very likely to be the Morning Star (or at least the period of the dawn when it is visible)... which, depending on context, can be Jesus, can be Lucifer, can be John the Baptist and is always Venus.
That hoary, moronic notion that "the Christians just dropped their holidays on top of pagan holidays so that everyone would celebrate them" needs to be black-bagged, dragged from its home, shot and thrown in the river. An awareness of seasonality and Light returning to the world was universal... akin to a Dark Age scientific belief; think gravity or evolution; more than it was a specific religious one. Having additional spiritual context was seen as further proof of the underlying notion, not some smarmy advertising hijack. #DefinitelyNotOneLastTime
Eärendel, the Anglo-Saxon angel name that may or may not have entirely kickstarted Middle Earth in the first place is also very likely to have been another name for Oriens/The Morning Star. This Oriens/Anglo-Saxon/Middle Earth/Four Kings conflation is probably 'the reason' I was guided toward the O Antiphons this year. For proof, here's a photo of a sign outside my Wellington apartment earlier this year.
The 'reason' I took this photo in the first place was that the Four Kings -seen specifically through the eyes of Jake Stratton-Kent's Testament of St Cyprian the Mage- has been one of my great praxis improvements of the whole year. You all know I find the Four Elements preposterous but directionality is in the literal sense 'fundamental'.... having origins that go all the way back to Palaeolithic shamanism. I think you would struggle to do spirit work without directionality.
There is an additional layer to the Four Kings that only becomes apparent when you start to work with them. During the questions after my Glastonbury dragon presentation earlier this year I discussed the notion that quite a number of the spirits we think of as spirits began their afterlife as prominent dead people.
For instance, St George patently never existed. He is a typological example of a dragon slaying myth that goes back to at least 4,000 BC (which you would know if you were at my presentation!) That being said, the earliest evidence of a church/place of veneration for St George in Syria was built into the grave of an anonymous warlord. Anonymous though he is, it is reasonable to suggest that he was something of an ass-kicker in life... hence having the cult of a warrior saint built around him.
Let's fold this largely-unacknowledged necromancy back into Tolkien's great love: the Anglo-Saxon world. If you consider almost any of the early British/Anglo-Saxon saints -St Edmund being the premier example- they didn't really do anything beyond being a 'good' regional king and then dying... in Edmund's case at the hands of Vikings. The bar for sainthood was set considerably lower: don't get rapey with the peasants. The end.
Insofar as we can tell given the scant evidence that has survived, in most cases the miracles attributed to these Anglo-Saxon saints were postmortem. They were not setting up eye hospitals in Pakistan. Pilgrims would drink from wells near their tomb and be healed of afflictions. Apparitions would appear and warn of Viking fleets offshore. We are in St George land here. These are the actions of Dead Kings. And these actions were set in a world of sacred stones, dragons, elves and battles for the survival of entire cultures. Each raiding season the very Soul of the World was at stake. Does any of this ring a bell?
Dead Kings and their relics feature prominently on both sides of the battle for Middle Earth, itself set in a landscape of tombs, ruined kingdoms and half-remembered heroism. Working with the Four Kings, you become aware that there is or was a famous ruler in a cold land to your north. You may not know the content of his legend but you at least feel that it was obviously significant enough for you to be calling out to it. There is a necromantic physicality to the action that can only be experienced performatively. At least some part of this spirit is built of a Dead King. The upshot of the rite is to call the might, the renown, the mana of glorious vanished kingdoms.
This is Tolkien's Catholicism. It is a recognition that there was no 'break' but a bleed-through of the Classical and post-Classical world, through the mythological traditions of Northern Euope and ultimately into the Anglo-Saxon churches that were steadily replaced by the yet-to-be-sufficiently-explained explosion of Gothic cathedrals. It is this petrie dish that grows 'witchcraft as the grimoire tradition reacting with the local biosphere'. Odin, the Devil and Jesus are all summoned in the same Icelandic spell as late as the 17th century. This is not the wholesale replacement of whatever frou-frou, re-enacty, pagan-wisdom-school bullshittery you think predates Christianity. This is a messy, bloody, inefficient, delicious soup made from whatever was found in the kitchen.
I begin to understand why he was so bewildered when people would question why someone so 'smart' and 'historically aware' was a card-carrying, proselytising Catholic. Do these idiots even understand the etymology of the word? Evidently not, Professor. The point is consistently missed. Take the often-levelled criticism that when Gandalf returned as Gandalf the White he was technically invulnerable. Not even Sauron could destroy him. This means that had the War of the Ring failed, he would ultimately have been the last servant of the Valar left alive in Middle Earth after Mordor had killed everyone else... fighting alone in the centre of a limitless sea of orcs, trolls and Nazgul. Forever. This is not some novelist's whoopsie. It's horrifying. It is also a singularly northern European vision of resolve, of resistance. There is something Ragnarokian about it.
Chris Knowles and I have been chatting a bit about how big a mistake it was on Catholicism's behalf to clean out its cupboards of all its sibyls and necromancy and really any of the pieces that you could use to grow magically. It is doubly stupid because it is a spiritual impulse that cannot be ignored. It will always break through. Do you think we'd have Santa Muerte if Catholicism was still lousy with ghosts, necromantic psychopomps and an attitude to Death that was not disintermediated?
Maybe. But I maintain it would look very different. As long as you open your eyes to a more sophisticated sense of historical continuity this state of affairs is almost a Good News story. (Geddit?) What Rome cleared out of its cupboards is left for the sorcerers of the world to pick up like Blood Diamonds on an African beach. It is not your grandmother's Catholicism.
And the Dead keep it.